Taking a big gamble in a slow economy, a husband-and-wife team of young MBAs tries to revive a Towson landmark.


January 21, 1991|By Cindy Harper-Evans

The wedding vows between Laura and Charlie Moore could have gone something like this: Do you promise to love, honor and go into business with your spouse?

Just as sure as Mr. Moore was in 1980 that he wanted to marry his college sweetheart after graduation from Dartmouth College, was equally certain that he wanted to form a business partnership with her as well.

"All of my business experiences since college were geared toward attaining the goal of working with Laura on our own project," Mr. Moore says.

So 10 years, two MBAs and several work experiences later, Laura M. and Charles P. Moore have emerged in Mr. Moore's hometown of Baltimore "like a breath of fresh air," according to one observer.

For their first joint project, they have become wedded to an idea on a scale as grand as the landmark Hutzler's department store they want to revamp.

The plan is to convert the four-story, Art Deco building in Towson -- which in 1952 ushered in the age of the big suburban store -- into an upscale home furnishings mall. Called the DECOR Home Fashion Center, it would house up to 90 vendors in its 200,000-square-foot space, selling everything from furniture to antiques to lighting, art, china and bath fixtures.

Through their recently created Emporium Development, the Moores will provide Its location next to an expanding Towson Town Center, its high profile atop the hill at York and Joppa roads and its proximity to Towson Commons -- a commercial and office development rising along the west side of York Road between Chesapeake and Pennsylvania avenues -- has county leaders abuzz about the prospects of DECOR being the much-needed link between Old Towson and New Towson.

"The key, in my mind, is returning this grand dame of a building, a large vacant building in the county seat, into a bustling commercial center again," says Dick Story, director of economic development for Baltimore County. "DECOR is something that appears to be able to do that. It is another piece in the jigsaw puzzle of downtown Towson."

San Diego-based Hahn Co., owner of Towson Town Center and the adjacent Hutzler's building, is willing to give the Moores a chance. The proposals it has received for the building include a cultural arts center, an office building and a general merchandise retail mall.

But, says Hahn spokeswoman Kim Wenrick, the DECOR concept "seemed the most complementary" to the ambience Towson Town is trying to create in its evolving regional shopping giant, which will include Nordstrom and other high-brow tenants when it is completed in 1992.

The 50-year-lease the Moores are negotiating with Hahn has myriad, undisclosed planning and design requirements that must be fulfilled before the deal is done.

Emporium Development has only until the summer to sign the lease with Hahn, so the Moores have begun a marathon search for tenants in places such as Boston, New York and Baltimore.

But with the economy in recession and no clear sign of a recovery, the big question for the Moores is whether they will be able to fill up their tenant roster with 90 upscale vendors who are willing to make a firm commitment by midyear.

Sources involved in the project, who declined to be identified because the Moores are reluctant to discuss specific retailers they have contacted, say the couple has spoken at length with well-known several home furnishing chains but has received commitments from none of them. The sources identified those retailers as Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma and Casa Nova.

A spokesperson at Illinois-based Crate & Barrel said the housewares chain had been approached about being an anchor store at DECOR, but the retailer was "not considering the market at this time." Officials at Williams-Sonoma, a kitchenware specialist, and Casa Nova did not return phone calls.

Mrs. Moore says Emporium has high expectations for a letter of intent from Domain -- a posh Boston-based home furnishings store with Virginia locations in Tysons Corner and Pentagon City.

"The initial aspirations for the project, which are very, very high-end, will be watered down a bit in order to fill the center up" with tenants, predicts Darrell Davidson, who will do the retail design work for Emporium through his firm, Davidson Design & Development Consultants.

Another issue is financing. The Moores say they have an unspecified number of financial partners, but they are still searching for capital.

"We're still short of the $15 million needed for work on the building," Mr. Moore says. That figure doesn't include the parking structure that has to be built in order to ease county concerns about traffic and overcrowding.

Despite the tentative nature of the project, the couple has managed to build a following of Moore supporters who are taken with their "youth, intestinal fortitude and energy," says Robert H. Levi, former chairman and president of Hecht Co., whom the couple first contacted locally about their home fashion center.

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